A new committee tasked with inspecting construction permits in Preah Sihanouk province in the wake of a fatal building collapse over the weekend has already found five illegally operating projects, Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng said Wednesday.
On June 22, an unlicensed seven-story building collapsed in the provincial capital Sihanoukville, killing 28 people and injuring 26—many of whom were construction workers sleeping on the second floor at the time of the incident.
A day later, the government ordered the creation of the Committee for the Inspection of the Quality of Buildings to review the technical aspects, standards, and safety of construction projects in Preah Sihanouk. The committee reports to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction.
On Wednesday, Sar Kheng told reporters at an event in Phnom Penh that he had ordered his ministry’s general administration department to review all construction projects throughout the country, with a focus on Preah Sihanouk.
“I received a preliminary report from [Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction] Chea Sophara which said there are five illegal buildings [in Sihanoukville] currently under construction,” he said, without providing the names of the companies operating the sites.
On Tuesday, the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court charged seven people, including five Chinese nationals, with involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy in connection with the collapse of the Chinese-owned building in Sihanoukville.
The charges followed the Monday resignation of Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Yun Min and an announcement by Prime Minister Hun Sen that he had removed Nhim Vannda from his post as senior minister and first vice-chairman of the Committee for Natural Disaster Management due to his “lack of responsibility and lies.”
Call for action
Cheap Sotheary, Preah Sihanouk provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the authorities should take legal action against any company that undertakes construction without permission, as well as any official that allows said construction to occur.
She said that if the Committee for the Inspection of the Quality of Buildings fails to take action, illegal construction will continue.
“When the committee discovers illegal construction, measures must be taken against the builders and authorities who are responsible for issuing construction permits,” she said.
Cheap Sotheary also criticized Hun Sen for firing Nhim Vanda only to recently appoint him as a government advisor, and for appointing Yun Min to work at the Ministry of Interior after his resignation earlier this week.
“They should be made to retire because they are getting old they are tired of working,” she said.
“I am very sad because we have plenty of people [who can replace them] that are young and capable.”
Earlier, Cheap Sotheary warned that “70-80 percent” of all Chinese construction in Sihanoukville “uses the same building methods” as those used at the site of the collapsed building, which she said involves steel frames as anchors instead of concrete columns.
Chinese investment has flowed into casinos, hotels, and real estate in Preah Sihanouk province and its largest town, Sihanoukville, turning the once sleepy seaside town into a flash point for Cambodians concerned about Chinese economic penetration of their country.
Cambodians complain about unscrupulous business practices, gangland violence, and unbecoming behavior by growing crowds of Chinese investors and tourists drawn to Sihanoukville and a nearby Chinese Special Economic Zone connected to Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative.
Last month Sihanoukville authorities shut down a Chinese-owned casino accused of polluting an adjacent beach following the casino’s defiance of orders to cease operations.
On Wednesday, Sihanoukville immigration chief Chhay Bunna told local media that authorities had deported 63 Chinese nationals and recently arrested another five, all on charges related to internet scams and fraud.
Sreng Vanly, Preah Sihanouk provincial coordinator for local rights group Licadho, welcomed the arrests, but told RFA that the government should prosecute suspects who are foreign nationals before expelling them from the country in order to set an example for other would-be criminals in the region.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.